Creatives join forces at The Big Punchbowl
The vast beauty of Freycinet’s Big Punchbowl is captured by nine Australian painters paired with nine poets at an exhibition that shows art need not always be a solitary pursuit
The long Tasmanian tradition of painters pairing with poets was introduced to Hobart audiences by the late Dick Bett and wife Carol in 1986 – as a way of developing Bett Gallery’s audience. So, it was tempting to think Dick’s spirit was hovering over the recent, standing-room-only opening of the 2017 version, Poets & Painters: Celebrating the Big Punchbowl, at the Moonah Arts Centre. The exhibition has moved on to Bett Gallery, where it is on show now until September 18.
In his opening remarks, Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick, head of geography and environmental studies at the University of Tasmania, recalled the generation that “once drank at The Travs in the ’70s” (many of whom were in the room) and described Bett Gallery as “a long-time creative cradle for life-affirming art”.
In the spring and summer of 2016 and 2017, nine eminent Australian painters and nine poets visited the Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s Big Punchbowl Reserve on the Freycinet Peninsula. Working in pairs assigned with judicious care by cocurators Carol Bett and poet Pete Hay, the artists’ challenge was to capture the landscape of this 244ha wetland oasis in poetry and paintings.
The TLC has hosted artists on properties in the past: the Skullbone Experiment was inspired by another of their 14 private reserves at Skullbone Plains in the Central Highlands. But this was the first time artists were taken “on retreat” into a natural area, and the first time accompanied by poets.
Hay knew the challenge they were setting: “It’s quite a big ask to ask artists to co-create when any art is a very solitary endeavour.”
But he says what’s been created presents ideas beyond the confines of the gallery.
Over three days in late October last year, artists camped in tents or were boarded locally at Swanwick and Friendly Beaches. A food van kept the group fed and watered, while Devil’s Corner, the neighbouring winery with views over the Big Punchbowl reserve, provided local wines.
Some took photographs; others sketched, walked and talked together. The soloists wandered off on their own. They listened to locals who’d lived on the peninsula, learnt about flora, fauna and wildlife ecology from TLC staff, and appreciated how Aboriginal people might have survived here on swan eggs and wallaby.
At the end of the immersion, nine pairs of poets and painters were given six months to create a body of work. The results are fascinating in their diversity – one expanse of water turns into so much more than what can be seen simply by the human eye.
Artist Thornton Walker found the whole expanse of the place too much to take in, so chose to focus on a detail that stopped him in his tracks: wallaby bones among the trees he saw as “a shrine”. Poet Louise Oxley evoked the bones immaculately as “a totem: white as east coast sand” in her poem Bones at Barney Ward’s Lagoon.
Poet Ben Walter and artist Richard Wastell, both taken by the sound of the frogs and the abundance of life in the water, flush with rain for the first time in a decade, waded out across the Punchbowl, making notes and sketches.
A few months later, Wastell says, Walter sent him rough drafts of poems, one of which “captured beautifully the feeling of that afternoon on the lagoon”. Sedgeland Nation was incorporated into Wastell’s epic panel “like signposts along a journey”. He worked solidly on the charcoal drawing for four months.
Artist Sue Lovegrove, paired with poet Adrienne Eberhard, says of the experience: “So often as an artist you sit in the studio on your own and your head is cartwheeling with itself. That experience with another was connecting outside of your own head. It was so special. We hardly communicated – we were so well-tuned.” Eberhard said they seemed to be kindred spirits, sharing a love for small things, “like the way wind moves through grasses and the textures of landscapes”.
TLC chief executive Jane Hutchinson described the show as innovative and motivated by cultural value. “It’s creating not just economic value – these artworks are available for sale – but also really deep cultural connections to place that people can take away with them and share,” she says. “Even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit that place, it gives you the chance to say, ‘Wow, it must be really special’.”
Back at the opening, poets read their poems in front of the painting inspired by moments shared at the Punchbowl. Former Glover Prize curator Jane Deeth said: “Collaboration is always a slightly fraught space, with two kinds of minds working together in a moment – whatever that together means. But, the overall project of the TLC – as a gentle way of achieving an appreciation of private landscapes – is priceless.”
Poets and Painters: Celebrating The Big Punchbowl, is showing at Bett Gallery, Hobart, until Monday, September 18. The exhibition is accompanied by a limited-edition book Punchbowl. The artist pairings are Greg Lehman and Imants Tillers; Sarah Day and Raymond Arnold; Ben Walter and Richard Wastell; Adrienne Eberhard and Sue Lovegrove; James Charlton and Joan Ross; Lyn Reeves and Megan Walch; Louise Oxley and Thornton Walker; Edith Speers and David Keeling; and Jan Colville and Lucienne Rickard